When I was but a wee lad, I had a fear of the dark. I was convinced that there was something living under my bed, and that it only came out in the dark. My mother used to try and convince me that if it isn't there when the lights are on, then it isn't there when they are off. Eventually, I was able to convince myself of that same thing. As I grew older, and especially after I entered the education field, I began to see that same philosopy applied to education. If we say it doesn't exist, then it doesn't.
I have seen this applied to gangs, "We don't have a gang problem, just a lot of kids that like to dress the same, hang out together in large intimidating packs, cause trouble, and deal drugs, but they aren't a gang."
Drugs were another problem that was constantly denied, "We don't have a drug problem here, you can get what ever you want, no problem." Now I am seeing it applied to mental illness and suicide. Not only by the administration, but by the community as well.
I live near the Woodlands, Texas. It is a primarily middle class to upper middle class area. However, there are quite a few out here that fit easily into the 1% category. To say that this is a highly competetive area would be an extreme understatement. Whether it is the floor plan of the house, the decorations, the lawn, the cars, the pools, hell, even the closets, there is a constant one upsmanship in the air. I have also discovered that many of these parents have no problem using their own children as pawns in the game. I have known nine year old little leaguers with their own private hitting, pitching and fielding coaches. Five year olds that spend five to six days a week in competitive cheerleading, and are dressed like street walkers for compettitions, but that is another story for antother time. Even once the kids reach high school, it doesn;t stop. I have seen students in upper level classes that have no business being there because the parents want them in there. I have seen coaches spend hours on the phone being yelled at by angry parents because their child is not on the varsity squad, or not starting, or worst of all, cut from the team because they lack even the most basic skills to play the game despite the thousands the parents spent on private coaches and lessons.
I have even seen students with learning disabilities denied the basic services offered through special education because the parents refuse to believe that THEIR child is anything but a future Rhodes Scholar and leader of the free world. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that topics such as mental illness and suicide would be as taboo or prohibited in the lexicon of topics for conversation. After all, their perfect child can have no problems what so ever.
After Peyton's death, I made a vow to myself to keep any other parent from ever feeling the way that I do. I also wanted to reach out to students and let them know that it is OK if they feel out of sorts, or as they don't belong. I wanted them to realize that they are not alone in what they are feeling, and that it is okay to ask for help. I reached out to schools and churches, scout troops, civic organizations. Any one I felt might benefit from my message. Instead, I was met with the sound of crickets. It seems that those in positions of power have adopted that "If we don't acknowledge it, it doesn't exist" philosophy. I have been told that I would be contacted only to find my inbox empty and my phone not ringing. I have even been told that they don't want to glorify suicide by talking allowing me to talk, or that by mentioning it, I am putting the idea into some one's mind. Perhaps the most ignorant statement heard was on the local news about a district not allowing students to wear memorial shirts in honor of a class mate that perished in a car wreck. The administration explained they don't allow memorial shirts because of suicides in the past, and they don't want to glorify suicide.
First of all, no one is being glorified. Students are mourning a lost friend. No student in their right mind is thinking, "hey what a great idea". The problem is, most suicidal people are not in their right mind, and by putting it out there, you are allowing students and others to open a dialogue. This is what needs to happen. By keeping silent and refusing to acknowledge the problem, these kids are pushed further into silence until it is too late.
In the 24 years I have been teaching, I have been at several schools where suicide has occurred. Each time, we received an email (or a photocopied letter) about what happened with specific instructions not to talk about it, and to refer all student questions to counselors. It was only recently, after the death of a student by suicide at my school that we received any training at all, and the training was maybe 10 minutes, and could have been emailed out, or each teacher given a copy of the pamphlet it was read directly from.
We no longer have the luxury of ignorance. Suicide is here and its real. Dialogues need to be opened, students and others need to be addressed, and society needs to know that it is ok to admit to a problem. No loss of life to suicide should be swept under the rug or marginalized. If the person had died of a disease such as cancer, there would be prayer circles, and memorials, dedications in year books and t-shirts. However, when the person dies as a result of depression, it is hidden, not spoken of, and trivialized.